The Big Question: Why are Britain's graveyards falling into disrepair, and what can be done?

Why are we asking this now?

Yesterday, some of Britain's leading experts on burial grounds met up at a conference organised by the Institute of Conservation, to discuss what can be done to save our last resting places from falling into total disrepair.

Is this a new problem?

The problem has existed for years, but our graveyards are getting fuller and fuller. That means there is more preservation work to do, and less time in which to do it. The consensus is that if action is not taken urgently, a chunk of Britain's heritage will be lost for good, as memorials and gravestones from a bygone age degrade beyond the point of no return. "We have this idea of pleasing decay," says Roger Bowdler, head of designations at English Heritage. "So we gently let them go and that's fine. But then, suddenly, they reach a tipping point and it's too late."

So what might be lost, and why does it matter?

Of graveyards that are designated as heritage sites, about 10 per cent are grade-one listed. Many more host significant examples of Victorian or earlier architecture and design. "They are really renowned around the world," adds Mr Bowdler. "They are a really peculiarly English achievement."

Tim Morris, the chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, says: "In an old cemetery, the first thing you notice is the architecture. They give a snapshot of another time."

More broadly, experts point to the possibility of reclaiming graveyards as public land: they account for a significant share of the green space in some urban areas. In the London Borough of Newham, for instance, 60 per cent of public land is devoted to burial places. In the past, they have been as likely a spot for a family to go for a walk as a public park. Keeping them in good repair would encourage people to see them as pleasant places to spend time, giving communities a chance of reclaiming graveyards from the clichéd menace of drunks and teenage yobs.

What kind of damage are we talking about?

All kinds of memorials decay over time. Rain gradually erodes the stone, making the small details that make the particular piece unique disappear. Acid rain, in particular, causes salt movement within a headstone or memorial that eventually leads to the block fracturing. And rising damp from the soil can have similarly damaging effects. The other major nemesis of the well-kept graveyard is plant life. If ivy grows into a crack, the continued growth of the plant can cause the gap to widen and widen until it falls apart.

If they're so important, why is this being allowed to happen?

The biggest single problem is that the most significant architectural pieces – grand memorials, generally to illustrious figures of the Victorian age – are the private property of the family of the deceased, which means it is their responsibility to look after the epitaph, rather than the church or municipal authority's.

Since most of the most ornate and interesting examples are from the 19th century – an era so morbid that it has been called 'The Great Age of Death' – the families in question may no longer be particularly interested, or feel a strong enough connection with their forebears to put in the necessary time and expense. And, of course, people are far less likely to live in the same place as their grandparents or great-grandparents than they would have been a century ago, further diluting the connection. Meanwhile, the legacies that were left to pay for the preservation of such monuments by the people buried beneath them have been made almost worthless by the ravages of inflation.

So it's the families' fault?

Not entirely. You can also put the blame on unscrupulous business people. Private cemeteries are an enterprise with diminishing returns, for obvious reasons: as a graveyard fills up, the financial benefit of keeping it in good repair becomes less and less significant. In the 1960s, many cemeteries were simply abandoned. These days, entrepreneurs looking to make money from the dead are more likely to turn to crematoria, where space restrictions – for similarly obvious reasons – are no problem at all.

Shouldn't churches and councils pay up, then?

In an ideal world, absolutely. But it would be very hard to persuade a hard-up local authority (especially one with its money in an Icelandic bank) that the preservation of dead people's property should be high on its list of priorities – especially when it already has to cope with the fact that it is legally obliged to offer burial places to every one of its residents. Parish funds, meanwhile, are generally absorbed by the preservation of the country's crumbling churches, which doesn't leave much for anything else.

So how can the money be found?

In these difficult economic times, the onus is likely to fall on local communities. There are some precedents. When cemeteries in Highgate in north London and Nunhead in south-east London were abandoned in the 1960s, for instance, community groups that valued the wildlife and saw a romantic quality to the graveyards stepped in to look after them. And in Bloomsbury, central London, a fully-occupied graveyard was turned into the well-loved St George's Gardens in the 1800s, and became an "open-air sitting room". Mr Bowdler is also hopeful that a growing public interest in genealogy may make people keener to preserve the burial places of their ancestors. And there are grants available from English Heritage and the National Lottery fund for especially significant sites.

What should be done to take care of cemeteries?

The first step in most places is to perform an inventory. That's a daunting task at somewhere like Kensal Green Cemetery in north London, which has at least 250,000 bodies in 75,000 graves, but it is crucial if families are to be contacted and asked if they will contribute to the upkeep of their forebears' memorials. Then it's simply a matter of a labour intensive process of cleaning and restoration. In the long run, preventative action is crucial: it is much simpler to remove a shoot of ivy from the side of a headstone than it is to repair the crack that appears in the stone months or years later.

Is the problem ever likely to go away?

Not unless a solution is found to the problem of our overcrowded graveyards: Britain is running severely short of final resting places. It is the only country in Europe where re-use of existing sites is not commonplace, a practice which was common until the 19th century, even here. There is still an urgent need to make more use of the 80 per cent of graveyards which are already occupied. A recent change in the rules in London, and expected expansion of those regulations to the whole country, should help to address the problem by allowing the re-use of graves more than 100 years old if there is no objection from living relatives. Without that change, the continued growth in numbers of fresh sites will only add to the amount of maintenance needed, and the problem will continue to grow for generations to come. The only consolation is that, by then, we will all be six feet under ourselves.

Are cemeteries bound to be ruined?

Yes...

* The money left by the occupiers for upkeep has either been used up or made worthless by inflation.

* Councils and churches can't afford to spend money on something that mainly benefits the dead.

* As our burial places fill up, the pressure on financial resources will increase still further.

No...

* An increasing interest in family history means that previously unconcerned relatives may pay up.

* There are some resources available from public bodies, and communities will also chip in.

* The law is changing to make the re-use of graves easier, which will stop the situation spiralling out of control.

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